Sunday, August 20, 2017

Finding common ground in Rakhine, via Canberra

Editor Tom Kean on the recent Myanmar/Burma Update conference at the Australian National University in Canberra.
The preceding conference in May 2011, just months after U Thein Sein’s government took office, focused on whether the transition would lead to positive change, but the focus on March 15-16 was very much on what exactly had changed over the past two years, and what challenges and progress we can anticipate as the reform process continues.

A Muslim man in Rakhine State’s Sittwe township in October 2012, shortly after a second outbreak of violence. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)A Muslim man in Rakhine State’s Sittwe township in October 2012, shortly after a second outbreak of violence. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

I was in a session with three other presenters called “Parliament, elections and public”. It is an indication of quite how far Myanmar has come that none of the four presentations, which covered the parliament, electoral system reform, grassroots participation in lawmaking and labour protests, would have been thinkable two years ago and before the reforms began.

Other presentations focused on reform in and the role of the police force, changes in the military, the return of exiled activists, transitional justice and updates on the country’s political and economic context.

While it was the 10th conference on Myanmar held at ANU, it was also the first to benefit from the participation of a member of the government. Deputy Minister for National Planning and Economic Development U Set Aung served as an excellent ambassador for the government, not only in terms of his presentation on “priorities for development sequencing” but also as a focal point for questions on policy.

The fireworks were instead saved for the session on ethnic conflict on the second day, when U Oo Hla Saw, general secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), discussed the “Democratisation in Myanmar and the fate of Arakan” with an audience that included a large Rohingya delegation from Sydney, including members of the Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia.

Neither side gave much ground on the issue of identity.

U Oo Hla Saw maintained that Rohingya is a recently manufactured title for a group that had migrated illegally to Myanmar from Bangladesh under colonial and military rule, and that there was no record of Rohingya communities in official British or Myanmar documents.

Members of the Rohingya community, who had the opportunity to comment and ask questions after the presentation, countered that there were other sources confirming the existence of Rohingya communities in Rakhine State in the early 19th century. One activist questioned how people who identified themselves as Rohingya had been able to vote in numerous elections since independence, and even be elected to parliament, if members of the group are Bengalis and illegal immigrants as many in Myanmar assert.

But when these questions of identity were put to one side, a confrontation that had the potential to be a sad reflection of the conflict in Rakhine State instead gave some grounds to be optimistic about one of Myanmar’s greatest post-military rule challenges.

U Oo Hla Saw noted that the “Bengali Rohingya” could not return to Bangladesh even if they wanted to. He also said that the conflict between the two communities had been exacerbated by the fact that they were unable to travel outside Rakhine State. (Recently, for example, a group of 12 Bengalis without identification documents was arrested in Nay Pyi Taw. They had set off from Kyauktaw township in Rakhine State and were reportedly trying to get to Malaysia.)

Because of the restrictions on movement, this growing Muslim population has therefore been concentrated in a state where development has lagged behind much of the rest of the country for decades.The implication, while not stated, appeared to be that greater rights, such as the right to settle in other areas of the country, could alleviate the social tension that the presence of the community has created in Rakhine State and in particular with the local Rakhine population. Certainly, he did not advocate leaving displaced Muslims to languish in camps or resettling them in a third country, and nor did he blame them exclusively for the outbreaks of violence last year.

While the sympathies of ethnic Bamar people have mostly been with the Rakhine over the recent conflict, U Oo Hla Saw made it clear that the RNDP sees the Bamar, and their control of the government and military since independence, as contributing to the current troubles in Rakhine State.

It was the Bamar, he said, who failed to fund regional development, who stripped the state of its natural resources during decades of military rule and allowed in illegal immigrants.

He also noted that despite winning 18 of 35 seats in the regional hluttaw in the 2010 election, the RNDP lacks any executive or legislative power because of the military’s 25 percent bloc in the regional parliament.

Pressed by a member of the audience on his party’s stance in regards to the Muslim population in Rakhine State, U Oo Hla Saw said that the Rakhine had been oppressed by the Myanmar government, and so it sympathised with other oppressed peoples.

It was not clear whether he was speaking for the RNDP and remains to be seen whether his words will be reflected in actions on the ground. But as the question-and-answer session concluded, the activists went to the front of the conference room and continued their discussion with U Oo Hla Saw, with the tone warming as the conversation progressed.

With arguments about ethnic identity and citizenship momentarily in the background, some common ground, and an opportunity for dialogue, had been created between the Rakhine politician and the visiting activists.

Moving forward in Rakhine State will undoubtedly be challenging but this recent conference at least highlighted that focusing exclusively on issues where the two sides are diametrically opposed is unlikely to yield any progress.

(Podcasts of all of the presentations from the ANU Myanmar/Burma Update conference will be available for download on the New Mandala website ( in the coming weeks.)